Unsympathetic Requiem for the Print Media

This funeral chant comes from someone who knows and loves newspapers as they once were, but never again shall be.

I used to read newspapers daily from earliest childhood into college, was a columnist and editor for my high school paper, wrote numerous “letters-to-the-editor” over the years, once was married to a newspaper reporter, and subscribed to five different printed dailies at various times during adulthood (Norman Transcript, Dallas Morning News, Daily Oklahoman, Miami Herald, Kansas City Star, Dallas Morning News again).

By in large, I enjoyed those papers, except for the mundane local trivialities and amateurish construction of the Norman Transcript, and the shockingly sloppy Miami Herald, whose writing was and remains infested with an inexcusable and patently unprofessional level of grammar, spelling, usage and truncation errors. I still read the online edition of the Dallas Morning News devotedly, every day, and often browse the Denver Post and Daily Oklahoman websites.

Therein lies the problem, when aggregated: Many others also are browsing news only online. The result is that print circulations have imploded for most city newspapers and national “news” magazines. Even more damaging to traditional newspaper media is the loss of classified advertising, about which they can do absolutely nothing.

News flash, fellow Quill and Scroll alumni: It’s 2009! That means it’s an online world now, and the newspapers have been left in the dust, watching the classified ad train rumble over the digital horizon and out of view, forever and ever, thanks to the likes of Craigslist and E-Bay. Journalistic Darwinism is doing its job duly and rightly, and only the fittest and most adaptable will survive.

The nail in the coffin for many newspapers is that general ad revenue (unclassified print advertising) has plummeted off the precipice of profitability because of the recession and other factors. Print media can’t keep up. It cannot — and I argue, must not — function as it has. This was apparent back in the early ’90s when the Dallas Times Herald (the paper I read daily for over a decade as a kid) went under. That event, along with the contemporaneous demise of a few other secondary big-city dailies, was the harbinger of what we see today. It has been sad, but necessary, a muted analog to human death. It happens. Grieve, then move on.

The Big Government (a.k.a. Democratic) solution is represented by Senator Ben Cardin’s “Newspaper Revitalization Act.” Bad idea…no, terrible idea!

Never mind what I hope is the obvious political ramification: mutual back-scratching between the generally left-leaning newspaper media who endorses politicians like Cardin, and the attempts by Cardin and his ilk to keep it on economically brain-dead life support. There’s another, even more pertinent issue here.

Newspapers, even more so than banks that issue risky loans or beggar automakers, constitute an outmoded, anachronistic and economically burdensome business model that, in its current form, must be allowed to die. For its own good, print news needs either to wither into oblivion or to collapse like a neutron star into some condensed reconstruction.

The Fourth Estate, and protector of the Constitution and watchdog of governmental and corporate institutions, still will exist, but in other forms (unless by governmental controls otherwise, such as the Orwellian misnamed “Fairness Doctrine“). Until any such intrusion, the online media is alive and well, both in the form of traditional reporting online, broadcast news, aggregators like the Drudge Report, and of course, BLOGs. Watchdogs in all of those are at least as valuable to free society as ever, and will thrive in their outlets, if left alone to do their work without intrusion and interference by the federal nanny state.

By contrast, governmentally rescued Big Media means governmentally beholden Big Media, much as the man whose life was saved makes himself indebted to the life saver. This sort of post-apocalyptic journalistic existence is subversive to the free press, not supportive of it.

The proposed prohibitions on overt political endorsement by “non-profit” media wouldn’t remove it, just shift it something even more insidious: behind the scenes and implicit agendas of persuasion, such as by preferentially running columns and choosing story slants that are overwhelmingly favorable to one political inclination, with only token representation of the other, while feigning impartiality. Now, this practice already is pervasive away from the editorial pages of newspapers, and intensively slanted toward the left. But at least now, the editorial endorsements allow transparency of that slant in the form of direct disclosure in one portion of the rag. Forbid this, and the bias becomes wrapped entirely (instead of partly) in a pretentious facade.

“We are losing our newspaper industry,” whines Sen. Cardin. My reply: Outstanding, and good riddance.


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